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Pushkin, or the Real and the Plausible

TRANSLATOR’S INTRODUCTION

Two great poets of two nations—Pushkin and Leopardi—died 150 years ago, each scarcely older than his century. As multiple coincidence would have it, these lines of introduction to a piece Vladimir Nabokov wrote about Pushkin on the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian poet’s death are being drafted on an Italian street named after Giacomo Leopardi, on July 2, 1987, ten years to the day since Nabokov himself died.

Pouchkine ou le vrai et le vraisemblable” began life as a speech. Nabokov recalls:

One night in Paris [old friends] brought [James Joyce] to a lecture I had been asked to deliver under the auspices of Gabriel Marcel…. I had to replace at the very last moment a Hungarian woman writer, very famous that winter, author of a bestselling novel. I remember its title, La Rue du chat qui pêche, but not the lady’s name. A number of personal friends of mine, fearing that the sudden illness of the lady and a sudden discourse on Pushkin might result in a suddenly empty house, had done their best to round up the kind of audience they knew I would like to have. The house had, however, a pied aspect since some confusion had occurred among the lady’s fans. The Hungarian consul mistook me for her husband and, as I entered, dashed towards me with the froth of condolence on his lips. Some people left as soon as I started to speak. A source of unforgettable consolation was the sight of Joyce sitting, arms folded and glasses glinting, in the midst of the Hungarian football team.1

Nabokov wrote to his mother in Prague that his talk turned into a triumph as the evening progressed. The lecture’s warm reception resulted in its appearance in the Nouvelle revue française for March 1, 1937. It remained one of the rare works that Nabokov wrote in French. The best known of these is “Mademoiselle O,” an autobiographical story originally published in a Paris periodical in 1936, and subsequently translated by the late Hilda Ward with the author for The New Yorker and Speak, Memory. Its original version, reprinted in Paris in 1982 together with French translations of the other stories from Nabokov’s Dozen, was hailed as a paragon of French style. Nabokov’s French had a special compactness and originality that might well have made him a major writer in that language had history and life taken a different course.

In March of 1937 Nabokov was staying in Paris with a friend, the emigré man of letters Ilya Fondaminski. The future of the Nabokovs—and of Europe—was very uncertain. Besides lecturing, Nabokov was meeting with publishers, agents, patrons of the arts, and other literary figures in an effort to arrange at least a temporary home for his family in France or England. His wife and small son were still in Nazified Berlin, which they would leave at the end of April to visit for a time with Nabokov’s mother in Prague. Upon completing the laborious and exasperating procedure of obtaining French visas for them amid an “avid bureaucratic hell,” as he puts it in Speak, Memory, Nabokov joined his family several weeks later. Thereupon the three Nabokovs departed to live for some months in the South of France before moving to Paris, which would remain their base until they sailed for New York in May of 1940. Nabokov would never see his mother again. From a letter dated April 15, 1937, one of a great number written to his wife during his travels that year,2 one learns that “my ‘Pushkin’ “—the essay presented here—was “having a very gratifying success.”

While my translation of the prose is as literal as I could make it, it is true that the special personality of the French language, where a nuance lurks behind the turn of every phrase and a botched idiom is idiotic, requires minor adjustments in order to obtain at least plausible English. A separate problem was what to do about Nabokov’s examples of Pushkin’s verse in French. Together with his considerations regarding the translation of Pushkin from Russian into French, they are specific and intimately related to the character of both the “from” and “into” languages. At the same time they reflect a general approach to translation that was to evolve substantially in the years that followed. Therefore I retained the French examples for the bilingual reader, and hoped to provide the ideal supplement: Nabokov’s own English versions from various periods. A search of readily accessible manuscripts and typescripts amid a treasure-trove of his translations revealed, alas, that he seems to have Englished only one of the four samples—the stanza which is misidentified, through an editorial error or a rare absentminded lapse of the author’s, as being from Eugene Onegin, but which is actually from “Yezerski” (begun by Pushkin in 1830, when he was finishing Onegin).

Nevertheless, this excerpt does make it possible to present, alongside Nabokov’s French illustrations of what he explains in his text, an additional peek into the evolution of his theory and technique as applied to the translation of Pushkin’s poetry, and poetry in general. Presumably done in connection with his US university courses, this English fragment reflects a partial transition from the accommodations, made in the name of rhyme and musicality in the French verses and in other early translations, to the unflinching fidelity of his Onegin (which Nabokov deliberately conceived as an uncompromisingly literal “crib”).

I have inserted in the text, together with Nabokov’s translation of a section of “Yezerski,” my English versions of the other three examples. They are based on the Russian originals, with occasional assists from the solutions adopted in Nabokov’s French (e.g., the substitution of the Fate Lachesis for Pushkin’s generic Parca). One stringent test of rhymed translations, and of rhymed poetry in general (although most versifiers seem to prefer playing on a netless, unlined court these days) is to check how obvious it is that one part of a rhyme came first, and to what degree the other part protrudes like a sore toe of the prosodic foot. “Sing not, my fair” best lent itself to an attempt at preserving not only meter but also rhyme, or at least assonance, and is to a degree analogous to the general method used in Nabokov’s somewhat freer French samples, which seem to pass that test with flying colors.

In the remaining two poems I made no compromise whatever for the sake of rhymes, welcoming them only if they tumbled of their own accord into my lap, while the relative simplicity of the Russian originals allowed literality to cohabit pretty well with meter. Even though his English version of Onegin codified a rhymeless and meterless scholarly precision, what Vladimir Nabokov had indicated elsewhere about poetic translation suggests that, even in later years, he, too, might have chosen to retain at least the meter of these particular poems. Would that there were a Volapük or Esperanto rich enough for poetry.

A word is in order about the little scenes Nabokov presents as instances of life’s “revelations and delights.” The astute reader will recognize at least three of them, in slightly different form, in Nabokov’s fiction. One of these vignettes, in fact, is the key to a short piece of prose he had written in 1925.

Nabokov guessed right that early “sedentary photography” with its “grotesque folds” and “funereal clothing” would one day seem an “artistic prevarication with its own special flavor.” An early death did preserve Russia’s great poet from such depiction. Yet, if he had lived to a “fabulous age,” and technology had switched into fast forward, even Nabokov might have been tempted by a video-cassette of Pushkin, wearing an “ordinary jacket” of his day, but—as he puts it in the story “A Guide to Berlin”—appearing to the modern eye to be “dressed up for an elegant masquerade.”

Dmitri Nabokov

Life sometimes proffers invitations to festivities that will never occur, and illustrations for books that will never be published. On other occasions it presents us with something for which we shall discover an unexpected use only much later.

I once knew an odd character. If he still exists, which I doubt, he must be the pearl of some lunatic asylum. When I met him he was already teetering on the verge of madness. His dementia, presumably precipitated by a fall from horseback in his earliest youth, was of a type that erodes the brain, giving it an artificial sensation of age. My patient not only believed he was older than he was, but was convinced he had taken part in the events of another century. Fortyish, husky, ruddy, glassy-eyed, this man related to me, with that little nodding motion characteristic of dreamy oldsters, how my infant grandfather used to clamber onto his lap. My rapid calculations, as he talked, yielded a fabulous age. The most fascinating and bizarre part was that, as his malady progressed year by year, he retreated into an ever more distant past.

When I saw him again some ten years ago, he spoke of the fall of Sebastopol. A month later he was already regaling me with General Bonaparte. Another week and we were in the middle of the Vendée.3 If he is still alive, my maniac, he must be far off indeed, among the Normans and their Conquest perhaps, or even—who knows—in the arms of Cleopatra. Poor, itinerant soul, rolling away ever faster down the slope of time! And, all the while, what an abundance of words, what verve, what roguish and knowing smiles.

He remembered the real events of his own lifetime perfectly, only he transplanted them in a bizarre way. Thus, when speaking of his accident, he kept shifting it back in time, progressively altering its setting, as in those classical dramas whose costumes are idiotically updated to suit a given period. One could not name a single personage from the past in his presence without his adding, with an old codger’s formidable loquacity, some recollection of his own. Yet he had been born in a poor, provincial milieu, had served in some unspecified regiment, and the education he had picked up rather than received had remained extremely skimpy. Ah, what an overwhelming spectacle, what an intellectual feast it could have been had a refined culture, a good knowledge of history, and a modicum of natural talent accompanied his peripatetic dementia! Just think what a Carlyle would have extracted from such madness! Sad to say, my chap was fundamentally uncultured and woefully underequipped to profit by this rare psychosis, and was reduced to nourishing his imagination with a hodgepodge of banalities and general ideas that were more or less erroneous. Napoleon’s crossed arms, the Iron Chancellor’s three lone hairs, or Byron’s melancholy, plus a certain number of those so-called historical anecdotes historians use to sweeten their texts, provided, alas, all the detail and color he needed, and all the great men he had known intimately resembled each other like brothers. I know of no stranger spectacle than a mania whose very nature seems to demand a whole world of knowledge, inspiration, and refinement, but which finds itself obliged to orbit in a vacant head.

The recollection of this poor invalid returns to haunt me every time I open one of those curious books customarily called “fictionized biographies.” I find he had the same compulsion as does a voracious but limited mind to appropriate some tasty personage, the same audacity as that of the self-confident know-it-all who strides off along the boulevard, evening paper in his pocket, to stroll in a very distant past. The formula is a familiar one. One begins by sifting through the great man’s correspondence, cutting and pasting so as to fashion a nice paper suit for him, then one leafs through his works proper in search of character traits. And God knows one is pretty unfastidious about it. I have had occasion to find some rather curious items in these accounts of eminent lives, such as that biography of a famous German poet, where the content of a poem of his entitled “The Dream” was shamelessly presented in toto as if it had actually been dreamt by the poet himself. Indeed, what could be simpler than to have the great man circulate among the people, the ideas, the objects that he himself described and that one plucks from his books in order to make stuffing for one’s own?

The fictionizing biographer organizes his finds as best he can and, since his best is generally a little bit worse than the worst of the author he is working on, the latter’s life is inevitably distorted even if the basic facts are there. Then, hallelujah, we get the subject’s psychology, the Freudian frolics, the bedaubed descriptions of what the protagonist was thinking at a given moment: a jumble of words akin to the wire holding together a skeleton’s poor bones, a literary vacant lot where, amid the thistles, languishes an old piece of furniture that no one ever saw arrive. To give himself a rest after his labors, the biographer calmly proceeds to don his subject’s waistcoat with its heart-shaped cutout, and smoke the great man’s pipe. That lunatic I mentioned—he, too, would recount anecdotes from the lives of emperors and poets as if they had lived on his block. A Russian cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, he spoke with relish of Tolstoy’s bare feet, of the venerable Turgenev’s silvery pallor, of Dostoevski’s chains, to arrive at last at Pushkin’s love affairs.

I do not know if in France there exists the type of calendar we had in Russia in which, on the reverse of each page, you found fifteen seconds’ worth of reading matter, as if, by providing you with that handful of instructive and amusing lines, the unknown authors of the calendar wished to compensate you for the loss of the day whose number you were about to crumple. What you generally got was, in that order, the date of a battle, a verse of poetry, an idiotic proverb, and a dinner menu. Poems by Pushkin frequently appeared—and that was where the reader found the finishing touch for his literary education. These few unlucky lines, half-understood, half-toothless like an old comb, brutalized from repetition by sacrilegious lips, would probably be all that the Russian petit bourgeois would ever know of Pushkin, if we did not have a handful of operas, all very popular, presumably based on his works. It is fruitless to reiterate that the perpetrators of the librettos, sinister individuals who sacrificed Eugene Onegin or The Queen of spades to Tchaikovsky’s mediocre music, criminally mutilated Pushkin’s texts. I use the term “criminally” because these really were cases that called for legal action; inasmuch as the law prohibits an individual from defaming his fellow man, how, in the name of logic, can you allow the first comer to assault the work of a genius, pillage it and mix in a generous portion of his own—making it hard to imagine anything more totally fatuous than the stage adaptations of Eugène Onéguine or Pique Dame.

A third and final element, in the simplistic reader’s mind, joins the calendar and the operas: hazy recollections of elementary-school compositions—always the same ones—that one used to write about Pushkin’s characters. Mix in a few off-color wordplays one often attributed to him, and we have a pretty accurate idea of the Pushkinian erudition of an immense number of Russians.

On the other hand, those of us who really know him revere him with unparalleled fervor and purity, and experience a radiant feeling when the richness of his life overflows into the present to flood our spirit. Everything about it is a source of joy: every one of his enjambments, as natural as the bend of a river; each nuance of his rhythm; as well as the most minute details of his existence, even the names of those who passed close to him, for an instant blending their shadows with his. As we pore over the splendor of his drafts, we seek to unravel in them all the intermediate phases through which his imagination hurtled to arrive at the finished masterpiece. To read his works, without a single exception—his poems, stories, elegies, letters, plays, reviews—and to reread them endlessly is one of the glories of earthly life.

Exactly one hundred years have elapsed since that twilight duel amid the snow, during which he was mortally wounded by a handsome lout who was courting his wife, one George d’Anthès, a young adventurer and total nonentity who later returned to France to survive Pushkin by half a century and die, an octogenarian and a senator with an untroubled conscience.

The life of Pushkin, all romantic spurts and blinding lightning bolts, offers temptations as well as traps for the hack biographers in vogue today. In Russia, of late, many have tried their hand. I have seen a couple of such efforts, and they are pretty revolting. But there also exists the pious and disinterested labor of a handful of elite minds who poke through Pushkin’s past, gleaning the precious detail with no intention of using it to fabricate tinsel for vulgar tastes. And yet the fatal moment arrives when the most chaste of scholars almost unconsciously begins fictionizing, and in creeps literary prevarication, just as blatant in the erudite and conscientious man’s work as it was in that of the shameless compiler.

It seems to me, in short, that by dint of palpating and frisking in search of the human side one reduces the great man to a macabre doll, like those pink cadavers of defunct Tsars that used to be skillfully touched up for the funeral ceremony. Is it possible to imagine the full reality of another’s life, to relive it in one’s mind and set it down intact on paper? I doubt it: one even finds oneself seduced by the idea that thought itself, as it shines its beam on the story of a man’s life, cannot avoid deforming it. Thus, what our mind perceives turns out to be plausible, but not true.

And yet, what blissful reveries await the Russian who plunges into the world of Pushkin! The life of a poet is a kind of pastiche of his art. The passage of time seems inclined to re-evoke the gestures of a genius, imbuing his imagined existence with the same tints and outlines that the poet had bestowed on his creations. After all, what does it matter if what we perceive is but a monstrous hoax? Let us be honest and admit that if our mind could reverse direction and worm its way into Pushkin’s age, we would not recognize it. What is the difference! The joy that we derive is one that the bitterest criticism, including that which I direct at myself, cannot destroy.

Here, then, is this brusque, stocky man, whose small swarthy hand (for there was something Negroid and something simian about this great Russian) wrote the first and most glorious pages of our poetry. Here is the blue fire of his gaze, in striking contrast with the dark chestnut hue of his frizzy hair. In those days—around 1830—masculine dress had not yet broken with equine considerations; a man still looked like a horseman rather than an undertaker. In other words, the purpose of the costume had not yet disappeared (for beauty disappears together with purpose). One really did travel on horseback, and one did require those top boots and that ample cloak. Hence it is but imagination that bestows a certain elegance on Pushkin, who, incidentally, in keeping with a whim of the period, liked to disguise himself—as a gypsy, a cossack, or an English dandy. A fondness for the mask, let us not forget, is an essential trait of the true poet.

Laughing heartily, extending his small frame to its full stature, stamping his heel, he suddenly flashes past me like those people you see emerging in a whirlwind from some nightclub (their faces, which you will never see again, obliquely illumined by a reflection, and their voices, which one will never again hear, repeating some merry joke): for is not the past itself a boîte de nuit, a boxful of night that I open with impatience? I am quite aware that this is not the real Pushkin, but a third-rate thespian whom I pay to play the part. What is the difference! The ruse amuses me, and I catch myself beginning to believe in it. I see him, successively: on the Neva embankment, in a dreamy state, an elbow propped on the parapet of massive granite whose grains glisten from the moonlight and the frost; at the theater, holding up his double lorgnette amid a rosy light and the din of violins, behaving with fashionable insolence, jostling his neighbor as he makes his way back to his seat; then at his country place, banned from the capital for some overly brash gibe—in his nightshirt, hairy, scribbling verse on a scrap of gray paper of the kind used to wrap candles, as he munches on an apple. I see him walking along a country road, browsing in a bookshop, kissing the delicate foot of a female friend. Or else I see him on a torrid Crimean afternoon, pausing in front of a wretched little fountain trickling in the depths of the courtyard of what was once a Tartar palace, while the swallows dart back and forth beneath the vault.

The images are so rapid that at times I cannot distinguish whether it is a riding crop he holds in his hand or the metal bar he would carry to strengthen his wrist, for, like his contemporaries, he had a predilection for the pistol. I try to follow him with my gaze, but he vanishes, only to reappear, one hand behind his frock coat, walking beside his wife, a pretty woman taller than he, her black velvet hat adorned by a white feather. And, finally, there he is with a bullet in his belly, sitting crosswise in the snow and aiming at d’Anthès for a long, long time—so long that the other can stand it no longer, and slowly shields his heart with his forearm.

There, if I am not badly mistaken, we have some nice fictionized biography. One could continue in this fashion and write an entire book. Yet it is not my fault if I get carried away by these images, images common to Russians who know their Pushkin, and a part of our intellectual life in the same inextricable sense as multiplication tables or any other mental habit. These images are probably false, and the true Pushkin would not recognize himself in them. Yet if I inject into them a bit of the same love that I feel when reading his poems, is not what I am doing with this imaginary life somehow akin to the poet’s work, if not to the poet himself?

When pondering the era that we Russians traditionally call the Pushkin period, i.e., the years from 1820 to 1837, one is struck by a special phenomenon, optical rather than mental. The life of those times seems to us today—how shall I put it?—less cluttered, less populous, with nice unobstructed areas of architecture and sky—like one of those old prints, in rigid perspective, where one sees the city square, not teeming with people and devoured by buildings with aggressive angles as it is today, but very spacious, orderly, harmoniously empty, with two gentlemen, perhaps, standing on the cobblestones engaged in conversation, a dog scratching its ear with a hind paw, a woman passing with a basket on her arm, a beggar with a wooden leg, and nothing more: just an abundance of air and calm, quarter past noon on the steeple dial, and, in the pearl-gray sky, a solitary cloud, elongated and naive.

One has the impression that everybody knew each other in Pushkin’s time, that every hour of the day was described in some gentleman’s diary or some lady’s letter, and that Emperor Nicholas Pavlovich was privy to every detail of his subjects’ existence, as if they were a bunch of more or less rowdy school-children, and he the vigilant and stern schoolmaster. A quatrain that was a bit too flippant, a quip repeated at a gathering, a hastily penciled note passed from hand to hand in the great granite classroom that was Petersburg—everything assumed the proportions of a major happening, everything left its precious mark on the century’s young memory. I really think Pushkin’s era is, chronologically, the last within which our present-day imagination can still roam passportless, lending to the detail of each day traits borrowed from pictorial art, which still had a monopoly on illustration.

Imagine—if Pushkin had lived another two or three years we would have had his photograph. Just one more step and he would have emerged from the night, rich in nuance and filled with picturesque implications, wherein he resides, to stride firmly into the wan daylight that is now a whole century old. This, I believe, is an important point: around 1840 photography—those scant square centimeters of light—marked the beginning of a visual era that has lasted to the present day. And ever since that time, which neither Byron, nor Pushkin, nor Goethe lived to see, the ambience has been so familar to our present-day sensibilities that latter-nineteenth-century celebrities assume the appearance of distant relatives—shabbily dressed, all in black as though they were in mourning for the iridescent life of yesteryear, invariably relegated to corners of somber, melancholy rooms, against a background of dust-laden drapery. Henceforth it is a flat domestic light that guides us through the century’s grayness. Quite possibly a day will come when this era of sedentary photography will itself seem to us a kind of artistic prevarication with its own special flavor, but we are not yet at that point and—what a stroke of luck for our imagination!—Pushkin has not aged and has never had to wear that heavy fabric with its grotesque folds, that funeral clothing of our grandparents, with a little black cravat devoured by the mandibles of a stiff collar.

I have done my best to define the nearly insurmountable difficulties confronting the most confident mind when it attempts to resurrect, within the confines not of fictional plausibility but of unalloyed truth, the image of a great man who died a century ago. Let us admit defeat, and turn our attention instead to the contemplation of his work.

There is certainly nothing more boring than describing a great work of poetry, except perhaps for listening to the description. The only valid method of study is to read and ponder the work itself, to discuss it with youself but not with others, for the best reader is still the egoist who savors his discovery unbeknownst to his neighbors. The urge I have at this moment to share my admiration for a poet with others is basically a pernicious feeling that bodes no good for my chosen subject. The greater the number of readers, the less a book is understood; the essence of its truth, as it spreads, seems to evaporate.

It is only after the first gleam of its literary fame has tarnished that a work reveals its true character. But with hard-to-translate writings that secrete their treasures in the darkness of a foreign language matters grow singularly complex. You cannot say to the French reader, “If you wish to familiarize yourself with Pushkin, take his works and lock yourself up with them.” Our poet is decidedly unappealing to translators. Tolstoy, who happens to belong to the very same race as Pushkin, or good old Dostoevski, who is vastly inferior, enjoy in France a fame of the same cloth as many native writers. Yet the name of Pushkin, which to us is so replete with music, remains prickly and shabby to the French ear.

It is always harder for a poet than for a proseman to cross borders. But in Pushkin’s case there is more profound cause for that difficulty. “Russian champagne,” a refined littérateur said to me the other day. For let us not forget that it is precisely French poetry, and an entire period of it, that Pushkin put at the service of his Russian muse. As a result, when his verse is translated into French, the reader recognizes both the French eighteenth century—rose-tinted poetry thorny with epigrams—and the artificially exotic romanticism that lumped together Seville, Venice, the Orient with its babooshes, and sweet-honeyed Mother Greece. This first impression is so wretched, this old mistress so insipid, as to discourage the French right away. It is a platitude to say that, for us Russians, Pushkin is a colossus who bears on his shoulders our country’s entire poetry. Yet, at the approach of the translator’s pen, the soul of that poetry immediately flies off, and we are left holding but a little gilded cage. The other day I took a crack at this ungrateful toil. Here is an example, a famous fragment of verse in which the Russian seems to gurgle with the joy of life, but which, when translated, becomes a mere reflection:4

THE THREE SPRINGS

Dans le désert du monde, immense et triste espace,
trois sources ont jailli mystérieusement;
celle de la jouvence, eau brillante et fugace,
qui dans son cours pressé bouillonne éperdument;
celle de Castalie, où chante la pensée.
Mais la dernière source est l’eau d’oubli glacée…

(Amid the world’s expanse, morose and boundless,
there surged mysteriously forth three springs.
The spring of youth, a rapid spring, and riotous,
it shimmers, babbling, on its frothy course.
Castalia’s spring, with inspiration welling,
[slakes exile’s thirst amid the world’s expanse.]
The last spring is the cold spring of oblivion—
[sweetest of all it quells the passioned heart.])

Even though all the words are there, I do not believe these lines can give an idea of the ample and powerful lyricism of our poet. But I must admit that I gradually began enjoying the task, not with the evil intent of putting Pushkin on exhibit for the foreign reader, but quite simply for the exquisite sensation of plunging, heart and soul, into this poetry. Now I was no longer trying to render Pushkin in French, but to put myself into a kind of trance so that, without conscious participation on my part, the miracle of total metamorphosis might occur. At last, after several hours of these internal mutterings, of those borborygmi of the soul that accompany the composition of poetry, I felt the miracle had been accomplished. But as soon as I had written these brand-new lines in my poor, foreigner’s French, they began to wither. The distance separating the Russian text from the translation I had at last completed was now evident in all its sad reality. For example, I had chosen a piece of verse that, in Russian, has a divine simplicity; the words, in themselves perfectly straightforward slightly larger than life, as if, at Pushkin’s touch, they had regained their original amplitude, the freshness they had lost at the hands of other poets. Here is the dim reproduction that resulted:

SING NOT, MY FAIR

Ne me les chante pas, ma belle,
ces chansons de la Géorgie,
leur amertume me rappelle
une autre rive, une autre vie.

Il me rappelle, ton langage
cruel, une nuit, une plaine,
un clair de lune et le visage
d’une pauvre fille lointaine.

Cette ombre fatale et touchante,
lorsque je te vois, je l’oublie,
mais aussitôt que ta voix chante,
voici l’image ressurgie.

Ne me les chante pas, ma belle,
ces chansons de la Géorgie;
leur amertume me rappelle
une autre rive, une autre vie.

(Sing not, my fair, when I’m with you,
the songs of melancholy Georgia.
They make me recollect anew
another time, a distant shoreline.

They make me recollect, alas,
those melodies that you sing cruelly,
the steppe, the night, a poor, far lass,
her face illumined by the moonlight.

The phantom, ominous yet dear,
is, at the sight of you, forgotten;
your singing, though, makes it appear
again before my eyes to haunt me.

Sing not, my fair, when I’m with you,
the songs of melancholy Georgia.
They make me recollect anew
another time, a distant shoreline.)

What I found rather curious during these efforts at interpretation was that each poem I selected found its own special echo in one French poet or another. But I soon understood that Pushkin had nothing to do with this: I was being guided by my personal literary recollections, not by that false French reflection one has the impression of finding in his verse. Guided by these obliging recollections, I was, if not satisfied, at least not overly irritated by my translations. Here is one I find a little more successful than the rest:

POEM COMPOSED AT NIGHT DURING A SPELL OF INSOMNIA

Je ne puis m’endormir. La nuit
recouvre tout, lourde de rêve.
Seule une montre va sans trêve,
monotone, auprès de mon lit.
Lachésis, commère loquace,
frisson de l’ombre, instant qui passe,
bruit du destin trotte-menu,
léger, lassant, que me veux-tu?
Que me veux-tu, morne murmure?
Es-tu la petite voix dure
du temps, du jour que j’ai perdu?

(I can’t sleep—there is no light;
all is murk and irksome slumber.
All I hear is that clock near me,
ticking in a monotone.
Lachesis, you babbling beldame,
tremor of the sleeping night,
mouselike scampering of life—
why must you upset me so?
What’s your meaning, tedious whisper—
a reproach or else the murmur
of the day that I have lost?
[What is it that you want from me?
Do you call, or prophesy?
I would like to understand,
I would like your sense to find.])

I also attempted to translate some excerpts from Pushkin’s longer poems and his dramas. For curiosity’s sake, here is one of the most beautiful stanzas of Eugene Onegin. I would have given a great deal to achieve a good translation of these fourteen lines:5

EXCERPT FROM ‘YEZERSKI’

Pourquoi le vent troublant la plaine
va-t-il virer dans un ravin,
tandis que sur l’onde sereine
un navire l’attend en vain?
Demande-lui. Pourquoi, morose,
fuyant les tours, l’aigle se pose
sur un chicot? Demande-lui.
Comme la lune aime la nuit,
pourquoi Desdémone aime-t-elle
son Maure? Parce que le vent,
le coeur de femme et l’aigle errant
ne connaissent de loi mortelle.
Lève ton front, poète élu;
rien ne t’enchaîne, toi non plus.

(Why does the wind revolve in the ravine,
sweep up the leaves and bear the dust,
when avidly on stirless water
wait for his breath the galleon must?
From mountains and past towers, why
does the dread heavy eagle fly
to a sear stump? Inquire of him.
Why does young Desdemona love
her blackamoor as the moon loves
the gloom of the night? Because
for wind and eagle
and maiden’s heart no law is laid.
Poet, be proud: thus are you too:
neither is there a law for you.)

I nurture no illusions about the quality of these translations. It is reasonably plausible Pushkin, nothing more: the true Pushkin is elsewhere. Yet, if we follow the riverbank of this poem as it unfolds, we do note, in the bends I have managed to comply with here and there, something truthful flowing melodiously past, and that is the sole truth I can find down here—the truth of art.

What an exciting experience it would be to follow the adventures of an idea through the ages. With no wordplay intended, I daresay that this would be the ideal novel: we would really see the abstract image, perfectly limpid and totally unencumbered by humanity’s dust, enjoying an intense existence that develops, swells, displays its thousand folds, with the diaphanous liquidity of an aurora borealis. One could select, for instance, the idea of beauty, follow its historical tribulations, and turn it into something vastly more vivid than an adventure novel.

How truly dramatic is the fate of such an oeuvre as Pushkin’s. He was not yet dead when the narrow mind of the critic Belinski picked a quarrel with him. The reproach, you see, was that he was insufficiently concerned with the squabbles of his day. Hegelian philosophy came to no good in our parts. Yet there was not a single moment when Pushkin’s truth, as indestructible as conscience, ceased to glitter somewhere. I feel it within me now, and it is what forces me to repeat something Flaubert knew as well as Shakespeare, and Shakespeare as well as Horace—that for a poet only one thing counts: his art. It is high time we remembered this, for I would say we are floundering, so far as literature is concerned. What is known as a “human document,” for example, is already enough of a farce in itself, while all the sociology that struts through the contemporary novel is as nauseating as it is laughable.

I do not mean to say that the century in which we live is worse than any other. On the contrary, the divine spirit seems now to be more firmly established in the world. When, among other men, one finds a man, his radiant plenitude is no less valid than that of the best minds of the past. Of course the philistine may have the impression that the world is going from bad to worse: either it is the old refrain about machines becoming our masters, or else the fear of some catastrophe that our newspaper predicts. But the philosopher’s eye surveys the world and sparkles with satisfaction as it notes that the essential things do not change, that goodness and beauty retain their place of honor. If at times life appears pretty dim to us it is because we are nearsighted. For someone who knows how to look, everyday existence is as full of revelations and delights as it was to the eyes of the great poets of the past. Who on earth, one asks oneself, can be this artist who suddenly transforms life into a small masterpiece? How many times, in a city street, I have suddenly been dazzled by this miniature theater that unpredictably materializes and then vanishes. It can be a coal-laden truck rolling along a sun-dappled avenue and the coal vendor with his blacksmeared face, bouncing on his lofty seat, holding in his teeth, by its stem, a linden leaf of heavenly green. I have watched comedies staged by some invisible genius, such as the day when, at a very early hour, I saw a massive Berlin postman dozing on a bench, and two other postmen tiptoeing with grotesque roguishness from behind a thicket of jasmine to stick some tobacco up his nose. I have seen dramas: a dressmaker’s dummy with its torso still intact but with a lacerated shoulder, sprawling sadly in the mud amid dead leaves. Not a day goes by that this force, this itinerant inspiration, does not create here or there some instantaneous performance.

One would therefore like to think that what we call art is, essentially, but the picturesque side of reality: one must simply be capable of seizing it. And how entertaining life becomes when you put yourself into the frame of mind where the most elementary things reveal their unique luster. You walk, you pause, you watch people pass, and then the hunt begins. And when you notice a child in the street transfixed by the sight of some incident that he will surely recall one day, you have the sense of being time’s accomplice, for you see that child storing away a future recollection that already seems to adorn him. And how enormous is the world! Only in the penumbra of a store’s back room can one imagine that voyages offer no mysteries; in reality the mountain wind is as thrilling as ever, and to die pursuing high adventure remains forever an axiom of human pride.

Today more than ever a poet must be as free, savage, and solitary as Pushkin intended a hundred years ago. Occasionally, perhaps, the purest of artists is tempted to have his say, when the clamor of his century, the screams of those being slaughtered, or the snarling of some brute reach him. But it is a temptation to which he must not succumb, for he can be sure that if something is worth saying it will ripen and eventually yield unexpected fruit. No, the so-called social side of life and all the causes that arouse my fellow citizens decidedly have no business in the beam of my lamp, and if I do not demand an ivory tower it is because I am quite happy in my garret.

(1937)
translated by Dmitri Nabokov

Letters

Nabokov and Jolán Földes November 10, 1988

  1. 1

    From an interview with Alfred Appel, Jr., in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature (Spring, 1967), reprinted in Nabokov’s Strong Opinions.

  2. 2

    Included, in part, in a volume of correspondence to be issued by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Bruccoli Clark in 1988.

  3. 3

    A hotbed of counterrevolutionary insurrection in 1793.

  4. 4

    The brackets enclose lines that Vladimir Nabokov omitted, for reasons of his own, in his French translations.

  5. 5

    See my introduction.—D.N.

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